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Harvard Business Review's editor on staying true to your audience

Amy Bernstein, editor of Harvard Business Review, explains how the brand stays true to its audience - and its mission to improve the practice of management in the changing world.

How did you come to be an editor at HBR?

My background was in mainstream magazines, business magazines, and digital. I have held senior editorial positions at Business 2.0, The Industry Standard, Brill’s Content, and US News & World Report. Prior to this role, I took a turn into ‘thought leadership’ (I use the term in inverted commas), with Strategy and Business at Booz Allen. From there, I became VP, Global Thought Leadership, at ManpowerGroup. That was kind of the detour in my journey, but I did that because I was given the opportunity to help them put together the industry’s first candidate-facing website. The project was a real departure for an employment services company, because for them the client is the company. Manpower and all of its competitors were dealing with a shortage of talent, particularly in the professional world – IT, finance and engineering. My task was to help them invent a way to attract and engage the professionals they could then hire out to their clients. It was a great opportunity to learn more about that world and, while I had been working in business journalism for a while, I really didn’t know enough about business to do it justice. That role gave me an opportunity to learn.

Did that role change your approach to content?

It allowed me to understand the impact content can have on business. And that’s where I saw that HBR has tremendous impact. It’s where I saw some of the cornerstone ideas of management thinking put into practice – change management, for example. I noticed that my colleagues subscribed to the magazine and displayed copies in their offices. HBR was a very important badge. I hadn’t seen that happen with any other magazine I had worked on, so that really had an impact on me.

Tell us about the editorial ethos of HBR and how you position the brand…

We’re very mission driven, and that mission is to improve the practice of management in the changing world. I think about that a lot. Our readership is the managers sitting in the c-suite and, in turn, those who report up to them. These are people who are running organisations and who have great influence in their world. We speak not just to the private sector; we do also speak to the public sector and are interested in fixing the system. So that’s always of interest to us. 

As to how we serve our readers, the editing process is very much a team sport. As a team, we are looking for ideas that are new and consequential. There are, by the way, very few completely new ideas, but changing circumstances can renew many concepts, so we often contextualise ideas in new ways. If we reject an article, it’s often because we do not want to tell our readers what they already know. We don’t want to waste people’s time. Our readers are busy, they are under pressure, and they’re dealing with unprecedented complexity– so it’s important we think about the problems they are trying to solve.

How do you keep abreast of the trends that are important to your readers?

I read a lot. I look at the media outlets that I think our readers are looking at, which is not just newspapers and magazines, but websites and social channels. I look at the major conference agendas as well. They can tell you a lot about what’s happening in an industry. But, again, it’s a team sport and we have subject-matter experts at very senior levels who are very much on top of the world they cover. We have a senior editor here, for example, who really knows what’s going on in operations; another who really knows what’s going on in marketing; another couple who’re on top of HR and talent. Our editors have also developed deep familiarity with core HBR topics like innovation, leadership, and strategy. We’re attuned to our readers’ concerns.

How does that play out over the course of an issue?

First of all, our pipeline is very long. It takes quite a while to get most articles ready for publication. Our process is iterative and it can take months for an article to reach publication. In thinking about each issue, we mostly start by working out what our Spotlight is – the theme we are going to focus on. Each Spotlight consists of three or so features on the same topic or theme. Sometimes that topic will be functional – such as marketing or HR. Sometimes it will cut across vertical functions to address more universal questions – influence, for example, or work-life balance. From there, it is a balancing act. For example, if we are going to do a marketing issue, we make sure we are touching other topics, so that we are producing a package that is germane to as many of our readers as possible. Relevance is very important. 

On the other hand, even our more focused Spotlights are relevant to just about any reader because just about every leadership role calls for broad, cross-functional fluency. So if you are a marketer, for example, you still need to speak IT, you must be able to understand what’s going on region by region, and you must understand the basics of finance. The territorial boundaries of job roles are not bright lines. 

To get the balance right, each of the three sections of the magazine has a senior editor who is responsible for putting that section together. I am responsible for overseeing all of that and making sure we are not hitting one topic too hard to the exclusion of another – as well, of course, as the usual editorial responsibilities. 

HBR cover Jul/Aug ()

Above: Harvard Business Review Jul/Aug 2015 Cover

How have you seen the role of editor evolve?

It’s funny because I do run one of our platforms – but generally I think it’s important that we stop thinking so much about the medium and think more about how we all reach our readers, so that we produce content that is compelling and relevant and urgent, and makes them think ‘I’ve got to look at this thing, because it is important’. At HBR, the way that plays out is that no editors here work exclusively on a single platform. We all work across platforms. I regularly have conversations with my colleages at the press – the book publishing arm – and in digital, and we think together about how we can pick the best ideas, develop them sharply, and then push them out so that they reach the people who they should reach.

Presumably that is important to ensure content is best optimised across platforms?

Right. HBR is much more than a magazine. It used to be that the magazine was the sun and everything else revolved around it. Well that is just not true anymore. HBR is now all of our different platforms, and all the different ways we reach our readers across the world. We all embrace that, and there is no “we win, you lose” attitude among the different parts that make up that whole. None of us wins unless we all win, and that goes without saying for us.

Has the way you find new ideas and engage new authors changed, and how do you operate in a more competitive marketplace?

There are now many other organisations competing for the ideas and authors we are engaging. Take TED, for example. It’s about the big ideas, just as we are. But what sets us apart from most of our competitors is that we are choosing ideas and developing them for a very specific audience – organisational leaders. The rigour component is incredibly important to us – “prove it”. If you can’t prove that your assertion is true, then it will find a better home elsewhere. We look at how big ideas play out in the real world. That’s critical to our promise that we are not going to waste our readers’ time. 

How to you protect and guard that commitment?

We have to defend our ground, that’s for sure, and the only way to do that is to do our work brilliantly every day. The editors across our platforms take that responsibility very seriously and they are very explicit about that. Every idea we acquire is an investment for us – so we have to make sure the return on that investment is borne out for our community and that what we produce is really useful to them.

How are you embracing social channels and what excites you about the opportunities they provide?

Social is incredibly exciting and it’s a way to give an idea renewed life. It’s also a great feedback mechanism. The market can tell us whether we have acquired and packaged ideas effectively, so I pay a lot of attention to what does well on social. Many of us tweet as well. We see it as part of our brief to get out there and make the world aware of these ideas that we think are so important.

What media trends are you focused on and what are the opportunities for the HBR brand going forward?

Personalisation excites me. Personalisation can help us serve our community what they need to know, when they need it. One thing that is very cool is that our audience tells us whether we are getting it right or not via sharing because relevance is measured in sharing. But I don’t ever want to let the metrics be the sole determinant of our editorial decisions. And I also want to make sure there is a way to communicate the really big, important ideas that readers aren’t looking for, the ones didn’t know they needed to know. 

How are analytics changing the way editors make decisions? How do you retain your feel for what’s right amidst the mass of data and trends?

They definitely give us another factor to consider. After all, they tell us what engages our readers. But I also pay a lot of attention to my own curiosity and my own instincts and that works pretty well. The ideas we cover are big and interesting, even if you’re not sitting in the c-suite. They are about how the world works. They find order in chaos. How is that not interesting?!

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